Md. racing to close in summer


RICHMOND, Va. -- Maryland thoroughbred horse racing will shut down during the summer starting in 1996, becoming part of an alliance with a new Virginia racetrack.

Instead of competing with Maryland, the group chosen yesterday to operate Virginia's first pari-mutuel racetrack has a cooperative agreement with Joseph A. De Francis, operator of Maryland's Pimlico and Laurel tracks. Under the deal, hailed as a boost to Maryland's racing business by some, the Maryland and Virginia tracks won't run live races at the same time.

"This alignment with Maryland racing is very positive," said Maryland Racing Commission Chairman John P. McDaniel.

"Racing in Virginia is going to be a reality, and to be part of it is good for us. The last thing we in Maryland want to endure is unnecessary competition."

By a 4-0 vote, the Virginia Racing Commission yesterday awarded a license to operate a racetrack -- to be located in New Kent County, about 20 miles southeast of Richmond on Interstate 64 -- to Stansley Management Group of Ohio.

As part of Stansley's arrangement with Mr. De Francis' Maryland Jockey Club, Pimlico and Laurel will run live races from January into June and October through December. The new Virginia track will have racing six days a week from mid-June through mid-October.

"The governor is very happy with this development," said Joseph L. Harrison, Gov. William Donald Schaefer's press secretary. VTC "Interstate racing with Virginia should pump new life into Maryland's horse racing industry. This is really very good news for Maryland racing.

"To have racing in both states with competitive ownership would only serve to weaken both."

Richard Wilcke, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders' Association, was supportive, but with reservations.

"I always thought a combined circuit in some form is positive," Mr. Wilcke said. "But how it all shakes out remains to be seen. It is better than head-to-head competition with another track. Conceptually, it could work out well, but the devil could be in the details. It remains to be seen if the horsemen will automatically go to Richmond."

Mr. De Francis said the 700 employees of his tracks would be "marginally" affected.

Instead of possibly losing horses, fans and betting money to Virginia, the Maryland Jockey Club will receive a management fee of 2 percent of the new track's betting revenue, or roughly $4 million to $6 million annually, to close down Laurel and Pimlico during the summer and run live races at the Virginia track.

Last year, Laurel and Pimlico operated at a $7.3 million loss.

Under the agreement, Stansley's track will operate 102 thoroughbred racing days. Laurel and Pimlico would have a total of 175 live racing days. Mr. De Francis said such a system would result in a loss of 70 live racing days a year in Maryland. Laurel and Pimlico will be open during the summer for betting on televised races.

This year, Laurel and Pimlico have averaged about $1.5 million in bets on weekdays when there is live racing. On weekdays with betting only on televised races, the average is about $450,000.

The loss of the 70 live racing days would be partially offset by a lucrative televised betting deal. The Maryland tracks will not have to pay a fee -- usually set at 3 percent of the money brought in by betting -- for the simulcast signals from the Virginia track.

In return, the New Kent County track and Virginia's six proposed off-track-betting parlors would receive Maryland's simulcast signal free for the nine months of the year when Maryland will have live racing.

Mr. De Francis estimates that incorporating the two states into a year-round circuit will increase purses to Maryland horsemen to an average of $200,000 per day, up from the current $120,000 average. Arnold Stansley, a partner and general manager of Stansley Management, places the figure in the first year of operation at $140,000 daily.

Mr. De Francis said he entered into the agreement with Mr. Stansley over the summer "because maintaining the status quo in Maryland racing, operating the way we do now, and then competing with a new rival in Virginia, is out of the question.

"If we had to compete against a northern Virginia racetrack or an . . . [off-track-betting] outlet in northern Virginia run by a track such as Churchill Downs, our business would be severely affected."

Mr. Stansley beat Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, and three others for rights to operate a track in Virginia. Mr. De Francis had been a candidate, too, but his proposed Loudoun County site was voted down in an August referendum.

Some critics of the Stansley-De Francis plan say Maryland horsemen do not want to uproot their stables and move to Virginia in the summer or stay in Maryland and send their horses on a three-hour trip to race.

Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association board member Jerry Robb said: "If they are going to run more turf than dirt races, then our board will never support the track. There are good points to the program . . . but our horsemen are not going to ship three hours to run on the turf. They don't have the horses to do it."

Richard Hoffberger, president of the state horsemen's association, which represents about 3,000 Maryland owners and trainers, said: "My guess is that the majority of the horsemen are going to adopt a wait-and-see attitude and watch to see if there are dramatic changes in the purse structure before they commit to go."

Del. Paul Weisengoff, former chairman of a horse racing subcommittee, said the Maryland-Virginia alliance would have a negligible impact on Maryland tax revenue, because the state still receives tax money from simulcast races.

Mr. Stansley said yesterday that he also had reached a tentative agreement with Colt Enterprises, owners of Rosecroft and Delmarva raceways, to close down Maryland's harness racing tracks and run live races at his track from Jan. 1 through mid-April.

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